Faces. She could read them all- the unmistakable twinkle in the eyes of the naughty toddler who had just learnt to walk; the reproachful look in the eyes of the spurned lover; the haughty arrogance of the rich spoilt brat; the guilt of a cheating husband.
Her degree in English literature had gifted her a lot more than the ability to appreciate Victorian poetry. Faces. She could read them all. And that was why this one particularly frightened her. She could not make out what that face was all about. The stranger, as she thought of him; the stranger with his cold and unfeeling black eyes and equally black tattoos that covered every inch of his bare muscled arms.
Five years of learning and the next 23 years of teaching at the Jawaharlal Nehru University had taught her the ways of those who fancied themselves as thinkers, believers, doers, revolutionists. And the stranger fit comfortably in the category. But still, there was something amiss about all those muscles and gelled hair and the thick stubble. The face of a criminal perhaps. It scared her somehow. Because she could read faces and this one surely spelled trouble.
She did not know what he was doing in the campus. Surely, he was not the type to study liberal arts and English literature or the political upheavals in the post war German empire. Probably peddling drugs or looking to settle a score with an old enemy, she thought bitterly.
For days on end, she watched him come and go. He would arrive in his intimidating manner, look around for something (or someone) and then leave, disappointed.
It was the icy cold month of January and the campus was enveloped in a misty blanket of fog when the stranger arrived again.
This time she could not resist. Emboldened by the warmth of her snug cashmere sweater and pashmina shawl, she went up to him and stood before his tall, intimidating 6 feet 3 inches frame, feeling like a dwarf. Immediately, she regretted her decision. A cold shiver ran down her spine and it was not because of the chilly wind. The face with a deep red gash upon the left cheek scared her again. But she let go of the feeling and mustered strength.
“Who are you? Don’t you know it is forbidden for anyone else except students and faculty to enter the college premises? I have been observing you for a couple of days now and if you don’t mend your ways, I am afraid I will have to report the matter and maybe call the police too!”
She didn’t give him a chance to speak and it seemed the stranger was in no mood to offer an explanation either. But his face registered a surprised recognition and happiness. The glee disappeared sooner than it had arrived. Without another word, he left.
The next morning, she was almost sure he would turn up again. These gangster types! But to her surprise, there was no sign of him that day. And the day after that. Or any day after that for that matter. He had left, she realized. And she hoped it was for good.
But destiny has its own strange ways. On the first day of February, the skies opened up and poured down all they had to offer to the cold, dry earth. The rain was so heavy and ominous that darkness enveloped the campus while roads became all slippery and dangerous.
She was driving her car in the dark. No amount of help from her wipers and headlight prepared her to avoid the speeding car from the opposite end. There was an inevitable crash and the last thing she remembered was that her world had turned blacker than the darkness of the storm itself.
She woke to find that stupid hospital smell of phenyl and medicines about her. She opened her eyes to the impossibly bright white light of the ward. And in an instant, the darkness of the accident came back to her, rushing!
A nurse entered with a bundle of seemingly important reports in her hand and measured her vital stats. She nodded approvingly before noting them down.
And then the confrontation. She was relayed the incidents of the morning and told, in good measure that she would not have survived had the young gentleman who rescued her not donated his blood to save her.
Grateful for his timely help, she requested the nurse to meet her benefactor. Oh yes, she could help, she said proudly and left the ward to call the noble man.
There was a delay of about five minutes before the door swung open and the stranger entered. The stranger, yes, he was there again and she almost fainted. That face with the cold black eyes, the thick stubble, and the blood red gash upon the left cheek. The face she could not read.
He was her benefactor, her saviour and she felt at a severe loss for words.
The stranger came near her and sat beside the hospital bed. He took her hands into his own and started sobbing uncontrollably. The warmth of his hands and the pain in his tears contrasted sharply with the cold black eyes.
She was puzzled. Nonetheless, she tried to comfort the young man. The man wiped his tears away and told his story. When he had finished, she was left speechless!
He was the young man who had proudly proclaimed in her class, 10 years ago, that he was joining the army. He was the young man who had been orphaned by war and wished to protect others from such fate. He was the brave young man she was so proud of. She was the only mother he knew. He, the best son she had!
She shuddered when she thought of how hurt he must have been when she failed to recognize him. Not only that, she had failed him by refusing to acknowledge him for who he was and accepting instead who he seemed to be.
Tempered by the daily battles on the border, the man’s face had aged beyond her expectation. With a profound sadness she realized that those fine lines, the thick stubble, the gash, the tattoos, the cold eyes…..were all deceptive.
Inside was a man who had made her proud…himself proud…his country proud! Inside was a soldier, hardened yet humane.
She asked the Lord for forgiveness. She asked him for forgiveness and they wept together. Mother and son…united, not by blood but by love. Reunited, she hoped, for good.
Faces she could read, she knew. But faces were deceptive. If only, she could have read his heart…if only!!!!!